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Students attending the Judy Jester Learning Center in Lawrence County on Thursday remove paint from an old sign that is to be repainted as part of Project Hope,  a semester-long initiative funded by the Children's Trust Fund to introduce the students to community service. From left are Chase Satchel, Devon Sherman, Tommy Parker and Kenneth Beason.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Students attending the Judy Jester Learning Center in Lawrence County on Thursday remove paint from an old sign that is to be repainted as part of Project Hope, a semester-long initiative funded by the Children's Trust Fund to introduce the students to community service. From left are Chase Satchel, Devon Sherman, Tommy Parker and Kenneth Beason.

Reconnecting the disconnected
Lawrence at-risk students become involved in community service through Project Hope

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — It's rare that you see a group of teenagers smiling and laughing while picking up trash or doing maintenance work at school.

But that's what was happening at the Judy Jester Learning Center on Thursday as students participated in Project Hope, a semester-long initiative funded by the Children's Trust Fund to introduce the students to community service.

The about 35 students at the Learning Center, an alternative school for students who don't function well in typical learning environments, have been planting shrubs and raking leaves at the Lawrence County Public Library and picking up trash along the street next to the center. Some were cleaning and repainting a school sign Thursday.

As they scrubbed and sanded the old sign for the gifted-education program, the students weren't complaining about the manual labor or whining about the cold — they were working as a team, laughing with each other and trying to determine the best way to get the job done.

They'll take those skills to the Lions Club Fairgrounds on Friday as they help clean the field for this weekend's North Alabama Chicken and Egg Festival. They'll also set up vendor booths and help with other needed tasks.

While helping out the community, the students are actually helping themselves, said music teacher Heath Bain, who was instrumental in organizing projects for the students.

The goal of Project Hope is to improve self-esteem and encourage students to stay in school while also destroying the stereotype that students at the alternative school are "bad kids," he said.

"The school catches a bad rap because of what it is, and there's a whole stigmatism against the kids, but I think all these things — the community service and the projects — will combat those negative perceptions," said Bain.

"People think I work with the 'bad kids.' Sometimes that's true, but nine out 10 times, it's not the case."

Students are referred to the Judy Jester Learning Center for many reasons. Some have had excessive absences because of a parent's illness, are dealing with emotional problems or pregnancy, said English teacher Rosemary Lewey.

"Each kid has his own story," she said. "For whatever reason, they're not functioning in their own school."

The learning center provides a lower student-to-teacher ratio and uses a variety of alternative methods to teach classes and encourage students to stay until graduation.

"We have to live up to the same guidelines and regulations of a regular school, but we have a lot more leeway and spontaneity at our disposal," said Bain.

Those alternative methods include a garden outside the center where students are growing cabbage.

Henry Buchanan, a motivational program coordinator who previously served the schools as a county extension agent, said growing cabbage requires the same skills needed to succeed in school.

"I gave each kid a cabbage and taught them that if they take care of it and talk to it, it will grow," he said. "If they do the same thing in the classroom, then they'll be like the cabbage. If they study and work hard, then they can grow and pass their classes. The same principles apply."

He has also guided the students in team-building exercises like rope making and worked with them Thursday on restoring the sign for the gifted education program.

"These kids have been disconnected through the different problems that they've had, either at school or at home," he said. "We're fortunate enough to have an alternative school that can allow them to keep learning and eventually reconnect to their original school program."

Many students at the center remain there until they graduate. The school has a special graduation ceremony scheduled for May 14. The faculty plans to have a barbecue and celebration that day for all those who have successfully passed their graduation exams and classes.

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